It is the first known outbreak of salmonella illness tied to such pets and reveals a previously unknown public health risk, officials said in a report released Thursday.
Many of the victims were children; six were hospitalized for vomiting, fever and severe diarrhea. Some passed the illness to others. The germ they had was resistant to five drugs spanning several classes of antibiotics.
"This is likely an under-representation of how large the problem is," because others who were sick may not have gone to doctors and not all labs do the kinds of tests that would detect this germ, said Dr. Chris Braden, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC's Dr. Nina Marano tells co-anchor Hannah Storm on The Early Show that, if infected, children "usually, one to three days after exposure, can come down with fever, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps. They can act very tired. And when we see this, we definitely want to get the children to a physician as quickly as possible."
"Most of the salmonella infections we see in the United States," Marano explains, "are related to eating contaminated meat, but there is definitely a risk in association with handling certain species of animals, such as reptiles and now the furry pocket pets. We've known recently about the petting zoo situation. So we want to make sure that people are doing everything they can to keep their children safe."
Salmonella infections are common from reptiles, especially small turtles called red-eared sliders, which are banned but have made an illegal comeback in several states in recent years. The 2003 that originated in imported African rats and spread to U.S. prairie dogs showed the risks of owning exotic pets.
But cuddly little pocket pets like hamsters were not thought to pose much of a problem.
Gerbils, guinea pigs, ferrets and rabbits could also carry the germ, the CDC said.
"This outbreak highlights the fact that there is no perfectly safe pet. Parents and children should wash their hands thoroughly after contact with any pet," even the family dog, said Dr. Stephen J. Swanson, a CDC epidemiologist working in the Minnesota Department of Health.
The CDC started investigating last summer after Minnesota officials found the unusual infection in a 5-year-old boy sickened after playing with and kissing a pet mouse that had severe diarrhea and later died.
Tests showed that both had a drug-resistant strain of salmonella, a relative of the germ that causes typhoid fever. The same strain was found in a 4-year-old boy hospitalized in South Carolina and in his pet hamster, which also died.